Housemade Sourdough Bread / Cultured Butter / Burrata alla Panna / Basil Oil
Polpette / Tomato Sugo / Basil Ricotta / Toasted Sourdough
Mushrooms / House Ground Polenta / Truffle Butter / Sherry
Weiser’s Parsnip Risotto / Confit Lemon / Black Garlic / Sorrel
Rigatoni Carbonara / Guanciale / Egg Yolk / Grana Padana
Bucatini All’amatriciana / Guanciale / Onion / Chili / Pomodoro
Lasagnetta Nero / Lobster / Fennel / Lemon / Truffle
Clam Pie / Lamb Sausage / Chili Oil / Mint / Oregano
Porchetta / Mark’s Sprouting Broccoli / Roasting Jus
Chitarra / Cacio e Pepe / Pecorino / Tellicherry Peppercorn
Dark Chocolate Tart / Smashed Raspberries / Tarragon / Creme Friache
Butterscotch Budino / Scotch Caramel / Whipped Cream / Honeycomb
Panna Cotta / Huckleberries / Basil / Shortbread
Like most years 2018 will feature no shortage of splashy Las Vegas Restaurant openings, the sort of multi-million dollar spectacles meant to impress some 45 million tourists whose hometown dining may very well be highlighted by Olive Garden or Red Lobster, but on January 3rd down in the Arts District the city received something far more special when native-son James Trees finally opened Esther’s Kitchen.
Described by Chef Trees as a “Seasonal Farm to Table Italian Restaurant” and named in honor of his late great-Aunt, the website detailing her character and connection to the project in addition to James’ own impressive resume including mentorship by several highly-regarded Chefs, Esther’s Kitchen can be located as the lone sign of life after-dark on South Casino Center Boulevard and despite the somewhat stark surroundings it seems locals have been quick to take notice.
Currently open six-nights a week and adding counter-style Lunch service on Tuesday, each day thus far packed from open to close, it was just prior to 7:00pm on Friday night that four diners made good on a reservation for seating at a rounded booth just right of the pass, an open kitchen on full display and Chef Trees sporting a big smile as he stirred Sauces and finished plates while also taking limited down-time to touch tables throughout the evening.
Designed in a rustic-industrial style not dissimilar to the likes of Hog & Hominy in Nashville or even Chef Trees prior employers in El Segundo and Venice, a few knick-knacks lining the wall next to a panoramic photo of the Santa Monica Pier, it was shortly after seating with the likes of Faith No More and Led Zeppelin playing overhead that guests were greeted by a pleasant yet quirky young man more than happy to offer suggestions, the eighth day of service’s only real ‘fault’ being his failure to check back with regularity that more than once led to empty glasses plus one plate being missed twice.
Skipping the “small plates” trend and instead labeling dishes in a more traditional manner including Antipasti, Pasta, Verduras, Pizza and Secondo, each scratch-made on site and many featuring locally sourced Produce, it was in an attempt to cover a wide swath of the menu that a baker’s dozen were ordered in addition to three Cocktails and two Iced Teas, a total of just $58 per person after Tax and Tip leaving everyone very impressed and equally well-sated.
Backed up by Sous Chef Ryan Dimaria and doing a lot of volume for such a small crew, the expediting times thus a little prolonged but certainly not audacious in comparison to other recent openings, it was shortly after placing the order that a Loaf of Housemade Sourdough Bread was presented alongside Cultured Butter and Burrata with Basil Oil, the hearty Crust and open crumb clearly the work of someone who has done their homework whether eaten on its own or toasted alongside finely ground Meatballs resting in a pool of warm Tomato Sauce.
Moving past Antipasti despite several appealing options, the decision to focus on more hearty items this time around largely a result of deferring the order to someone who “just loves carbs” according to Chef Trees, it was with previous share-plates still in place that bowls of Polenta and Risotto from the Vegetables section arrived next, the oft-praised dish of Mushrooms and Truffle Butter reminiscent of Scott Conant’s more pricey version at Scarpetta while the creamy Rice found great balance between Citrus and Garlic with texture dialed up by dehydrated Parsnips.
No doubt lured in by the promise of housemade Pasta, a room specifically designed for its production visible through glass at the end of Esther’s Bar, it was in a series of several difficult decisions that eight choices were trimmed to four and although the forgotten Chitarra would not arrive until nearly an hour later it would be difficult to comfortably say which was “best,” the hollow Bucatini making a strong impression by being served as al dente as they do it in Italy while fresh Rigatoni forms the base of what is without doubt the best Carbonara found to date in Las Vegas.
Not entirely bowled over by Black Lasagnetta, the Fennel unfortunately overwhelming any hint of Truffles even though the Lemon did a marvelous job of accentuating a sizable portion of Shellfish, it was straight from the kitchen’s two-day-old Pizza Oven that Chef Trees’ delivered his Clam Pie featuring Lamb Sausage and a touch of Chili Oil, the Sourdough base bubbling up nicely with a big cornicione and maintaining its structure without being limp or ‘wet’ at the center.
Offering only three Meat entrees, the most intriguing by far a roll of Porchetta made in limited daily portions and offered on a first-come-first-served basis, it was with the same share-plates still in place that crispy skin was sawed at with a butter knife before finally being able to enjoy the spicy Pork, a late arriving plate of Cacio e Pepe actually proving to be a well-placed ‘side’ in the same way Macaroni and Cheese often accompanies Pulled Pork or Barbeque Ribs.
At this point finally refreshing serviceware and reciting three Desserts tableside, an all-in approach clearly the only acceptable way to finish, it was beginning with thin Panna Cotta lined by Basil Oil and Huckleberries that palates were gently transitioned from savory to sweet, the Dark Chocolate Tart and Butterscotch Pudding targeting two entirely different ends of the spectrum with the former boldly bitter but well balanced by its accoutrements while the latter falls somewhere between STRIPSTEAK’s Macallan Butterscotch Pudding and Pizzeria Mozza’s famous Budino in terms of booziness while outperforming both in terms of texture by way of crushed Honeycomb and a dollop of Whipped Cream.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS: What does it take to pour your money, sweat and time into an off-strip restaurant in a city built on multi-million dollar marketing campaigns and implosion economics? Some might say a lack of common sense while other may say a lot of guts, but whatever it is that brought James Trees back to Las Vegas to open Esther’s Kitchen the whole city should be grateful because bite-for-bite and dollar-for-dollar this may be the most heartfelt Restaurant to open in a decade.
RECOMMENDED: Polpette, Weiser’s Parsnip Risotto, Rigatoni Carbonara, Bucatini All’amatriciana, Chitarra, Porchetta, Butterscotch Budino.
AVOID: Aside from a bit too much Fennel on the Lasagnetta there were no noteworthy cooking issues, though the forgotten Pasta, infrequent Beverage refills as well as saucy share plates and a lack of serrated knives spoke of “newness” moreso than any intrinsic flaws.
TIP: As above, lunch service begins 1/16/18 with weekend Brunch soon to follow. All plates made locally by Clay Arts Vegas and reservations available by Opentable.
WHAT THE STARS MEAN: 5 World Class, 4 Excellent, 3 Good, 2 Fair, 1 Poor.